X. Philosophy: Systematic Thought in Upper Palaeolithic Cave Art
Dualism is pervasive in Ice Age art, ruling everything from the co-existence of the two sexes to the cosmic dichotomy of earth and sky. The artists, however, recognized a great complexity beyond the apparent simplicity of an elementary polarization. Rather than unmitigated contrasts between summer and winter, the cave decorations offer elaborate descriptions of transitions between the two seasonal extremes. As demonstrated by the multifaceted relationship between bison and horses in the caves, the dichotomy of these two agents, representations of earth and sun, is subtly complementary, as the increasingly forceful presence of the former coincides with the decreasing power of the latter, and vice versa. By the strict adherence to this principle, the Upper Palaeolithic concept is strikingly similar to the philosophical concept of “yin and yang” as known from later sources on Asian thought. This famous system, in which the twin principles penetrate all of existence and remain tied together in alternating cycles of contraction and expansion, had an early predecessor in the philosophical scheme underlying Palaeolithic art.
In a number of major caves, this complementary dualism guides the programs for the decoration. While the artists traced the step-wise progression of the year, describing the culmination around mid-summer or the critical decline toward mid-winter, they still kept sight of the periods of interference, the moments when the near-total domination of the one agent ends and the recovery of the other agent begins. In executing these transitions, the artists adjusted descriptions of the seasonal progression according to the nature-given forms of the caves, some decorations featuring linear and continual narratives, others favoring fragmentary and intermittent scenarios.
In any case, the decorative schemes typically set up areas ruled by the forces of earth and winter and contrast those with areas reigned by sky and summer, but significantly, the latter retain a minimal presence where the former dominate, and vice versa. Moreover, the expansion of either agent is correlated with the retraction of the other. The complementary character of this conceptual dualism proclaims itself, specifically, in the fact that neither of the two agents ever totally eliminates the other.
The deep impact of this philosophical system may be gathered from a number of major caves that demonstrate its principles in elaborate detail. The concept is valid, equally much in caves that are dedicated to the bison, the earth, winter, and the female side of creation as in caves that feature the horse, the sun, summer, and the male sphere. As long as the world oscillates between the dominance of either of the two categories without moving conclusively towards one or the other, it was believed that time would keep going and life prevail.
The cosmos was created by the harmonic union of the two great opposites, earth and sky, just as life is generated through the meeting of the two sexes. The essential role of dualism in all of creation is duly acknowledged by the numerical system of odd and even, male and female, in so far as combinations of the two sets of numbers occupy key positions in the caves. Particular importance is given to the combination of 2 groups of 3 marks (or 3 groups of 2), and to the number 7, when rendered as 3 plus 4. Numerical 5 as the “marriage” of the female 2 and the male 3 occurs as well, not the least as a sub-text of representations of the human hand. (January 2016).
(Revised | March 2014)
Many scholars recognize evidence of meaning in Ice Age art, but few may be prepared to acknowledge an elaborate philosophical structure behind the images. Generally, cultural anthropology sides with a line of thought succinctly articulated by Walter Ong in Orality and Literacy (1982): comprehensive, systematic thinking was not feasible before the invention of writing. The theory is seductive, for it is true that in an oral culture any idea will be lost unless it is incessantly passed down from one generation to the next. Yet, Ong’s position is ultimately wrong, and not the least so because he, and the history of ideas at large, ignore Upper Palaeolithic cave art with its evidence of a tradition that lasted roughly 25,000 years. How could visual conventions retain currency for that long if they were not associated with lasting ideas? And, how could those ideas remain valid over such a long span of time if not part of some consistent thought?
Statistical analyses (Sauvet and Wlodarczyk 1995, and 2000-2001) show that the cave artists were selective in choosing and combining their subjects; the images carried meaning. Given the evidence that the artists assigned specific ideas to their select motifs and themes, we must consider the possibility that their thinking was, indeed, systematic, and that Walter Ong is only partly right in assuming that images are too imprecise–”unfixed” (1982, 86)–to compare with true writing. It appears that the fund of concepts behind the images was broadly understood, both by the artists themselves and by the communities that authorized and supported their work; the artists could express their thoughts in images, and the viewers could decode the messages. If so, the major decorated caves may be depositories for a body of cogent ideas, perhaps organized by a genuine program for the decoration.
The following discussion of Chauvet, an early cave with a complex decoration, will identify a significant number of ideas that are articulated in images, as well as themes that interconnect images, and ultimately, an over-ruling principle to which the themes are subject.
The black and the red: dualism in Chauvet
Chauvet is one of a mere handful of major cave sanctuaries for which a substantial portion of the imagery can be dated back more than thirty thousand years, and it is the richest of these very old sites. With a repertory of several hundred animal figures, hundreds of signs, and numerous ritual vestiges, Chauvet offers a substantial body of materials for iconographic analyses. The first explorers of Chauvet already noticed the most obvious indicator of a plan behind the decoration, namely that virtually all of the painted figures in the innermost half of the cave are black, while virtually all those painted in the outermost half are red. The former are painted with charcoal, the latter with ocher (Chauvet, et al. 1996, 66). Curiously, commentators usually ignore this color scheme, which, for example, is neither acknowledged in Werner Herzog’s film documentary on the cave, Cave of Forgotten Dreams (commercially released in 2011), nor in the diagram of Chauvet in David Lewis-Williams’ shamanistic manifesto, The Mind in the Cave (2002, 16).
Surely, this color separation is not accidental. Even if we were to speculate that some of the red images possibly were painted long before the black ones, the earlier artists may already have had the division of the space in mind, just as the later artists obviously had the older red images vividly present when adding their own red and black ones. Indeed, other caves, from different ages and regions, show a comparable division into two halves, one with mainly red images, the other with predominantly black ones. Examples include the caves of Pech-Merle and Castillo (both with a “red” northern half against a “black” southern half), and, Altamira and La Pileta (both with a “red” outer half and a “black” inner half).
Anthropologist Joëlle Robert-Lamblin recognizes the red/black division of Chauvet as intentional and meaningful (2003, 202). She pinpoints the dividing line between the two halves to a natural feature that actually falls quite near the middle of the cave, and has been named the Threshold (Le Seuil). This location is marked by a denivelation of the floor where a narrow passage separates two larger halls (Fig. 1a). More significant still, Robert-Lamblin pays attention to the coincidence of this color duality and the distribution of certain motifs, noting that the cave’s approximately fifteen bears are (almost) all in the front part of the cave and are correspondingly painted red. Likewise, the important motif of hand prints is specific to the front part and is overwhelmingly in red. From the perspective of comparative, cross-cultural studies, Robert-Lamblin sees the dual division of Chauvet as the outcome of a “primordial dichotomy,” a universal tendency for archaic cultures to think about the world in terms of binary principles, such as male/female, earth/sky, land/sea, summer/winter (2003, 204).
Duality is, indeed, a pervasive feature of Chauvet and its decoration, and a number of examples may be added to the ones mentioned by Robert-Lamblin. Thus the two cave halves have quite different morphological characters, not the least because the Descending Gallery, the downward-sloping corridor in the back, largely defines the nature of the inner cave. During its course it drops more than thirty feet and ends in chambers that mark the low points of the cave (Fig. 1b). The outer section, by contrast, is characterized by spacious areas, including Brunel Hall, which is adjacent to the entrance (Fig. 1a). The imagery is correlated with these physical differences, to the effect that the innermost and lowest section of the Descending Gallery assembles the essential “black” themes and is dominated by lions and rhinoceroses; at the opposite end, Brunel Hall gathers the “red” themes and prominently features bears.
At the bottom of its steep slope, the Descending Gallery presents a panoramic frieze with scores of lions and rhinos, a uniquely vehement spectacle that profoundly shocked the first modern-day explorers. Containing by far most of the cave’s lions (about fifty of some seventy-five lions) and rhinos (about forty-five of sixty-five), this segment of the corridor is undoubtedly the epicenter of inner-cave motifs. Bison, too, are characteristic of the innermost cave (about twenty-five out of thirty bison). These figures are almost exclusively painted in black, as is the single bear to be found in this area of the cave.
At the other end of the spectrum, Brunel Hall is unmistakably the main zone for outer-cave motifs, all of which are painted red. These include several bears, and most conspicuously, four panels crowded with a total of nearly five hundred large dots. These dots are actually prints of human hands made by coloring the palms–but not the fingers–with red ocher and pressing them against the rock wall. Whole fields of such red hands/dots are particular to Brunel Hall, where, in contrast with the situation at the other end of the cave, we find neither rhinoceroses nor bison and just a single (black) lion (Chauvet et al. 1996; Clottes 2003; Clottes and Azéma 2005; Gély and Azéma 2006).
Chauvet’s dichotomy of animal species, as expressed through different patterns of distribution, finds parallels in other caves. Though the numbers of lions and rhinos in the back of Chauvet is quite unique, the close connection between images of lions and the innermost parts of caves is also seen at other sites (for example, in Pech-Merle, Lascaux, Montespan, Pergouset, Font-de-Gaume, and Les Combarelles). Also the association of lions and rhinos is noticed elsewhere (for example, in Baume-Latrone, Aldène, Font-de-Gaume, and Les Combarelles).
As described above, the binary pattern of Chauvet seems to fit within Robert-Lamblin’s category of “primordial dichotomy,” and yet there is more to the cave’s decorative program than the division of everything according to two contrasting principles. Closer scrutiny of the artistic program provides clues to a more comprehensive system, an ambitious refinement of the dualistic mind-set.
First, it is a puzzling fact that even where one of the two contrasting agencies, the “black” or the “red,” is most forcefully present, we still find a faint statement, just a trace, of the opposite agency. Thus, while red images are almost negligible in the Descending Gallery, even its most remote area contains a few samples of red among all the black, including some inconspicuous groups of red dots; likewise, we find a single representation of the characteristic outer-cave motif, the bear, in the form of a single black figure. Conversely, at the other end of the cave, in Brunel Hall, the accumulation of red images and the near-absence of the characteristic back-cave motifs still allows for a couple of black figures including the above-mentioned, token lion. From these discreet facts we may deduce that we are dealing not just with two opposite, mutually exclusive categories of motifs, but with two complementary principles that alternate in strength without ever completely eliminating each other.
Secondly, the sections of the cave situated between the two extreme, outermost regions trace a gradual transition whereby, starting from the end of the Descending Gallery passing through Hillaire Hall, the agency of the “black” decreases relative to the agency of the “red,” until a state of equilibrium is reached around the Threshold, the midpoint of the cave. Hereafter the balance tilts in favor of the “red” side, which reaches its peak in Brunel Hall. This graded progression points to the subtle concept of two complementary forces replacing each other in measured steps according to an over-arching scheme.
Going from the depths toward the entrance, the transition is first noticed in the upper portion of the Descending Gallery (cf. Fig. 1 a) where it is indicated, partly by a less massive presence of lions and rhinos, and partly by the sudden appearance of a very different–less brutal and threatening–animal species, the megaceros (or, giant deer) which vies with the rhino for dominance over this section of the cave. The decisive change in the character of the imagery is, however, reserved for the Hillaire Hall where it becomes manifest in the greatly reduced presence of those species that characterize the innermost cave, as well as in the greatly increased prominence of several other species.
In Hillaire Hall, the lion, the rhino, and the bison no longer dominate the stage. They are outnumbered by the reindeer, the aurochs, and the horse, the three species that are featured on the central panels of the hall. These project a less hostile ambience than the one created by the lions and rhinos in the panoramic panel on the lower level, signaling a fading of the “black” forces associated with the cave depths. This reversal of powers is succinctly expressed by the changed relationship between the horse and the inner-cave animals. Thus juxtapositions of horse and lion shift dramatically, from the scene in the remote “Sacristy,” where a grand lion totally dominates two tiny horses (Fig. 2), to a scene in Hillaire Hall where lions and horses are of matching sizes, suggesting a near-equal balance of powers (Fig. 3). Furthermore, the impact of the (four) lions in the hall is reduced because they all are confined to a large, alcove-like niche, while the main panel of horses (Fig. 4) is plainly exposed. The same dynamics apply to the relationship between horses and rhinoceroses. In the Descending Gallery, the great frieze with its stampede of rhinos (and hunting lions) surrounds a niche wherein a single, small horse is confined, but in Hillaire Hall this spectacle is reversed with a panel that shows the mentioned troupe of large horses rising above two rhinos (Fig. 4).
The transitory process also spawns specific, localized motifs. Thus the changed environment in Hillaire Hall is acknowledged through the prominence of the aurochs. While it is absent in the Descending Gallery, the aurochs here comes to the fore in panels that reflect the diminished role of both the rhinoceros (Fig. 5) and the lion (Fig. 6). We also observe a change of guard between the two species of wild oxen, the bison and the aurochs, in a panel that is right next to the exit from the Descending Gallery (Fig. 7): to the left is the first of the aurochs in Hillaire Hall; to the right is one of the two black bison that remain in the hall (the other one is in the mentioned alcove with the lions). Likewise, reindeer are conspicuous in Hillaire Hall, whereas the Descending Gallery has just a single specimen, which is submerged by hordes of rhinos and lions. In Hillaire Hall, the reindeer first appear in the panel that also shows the first of the aurochs (half a dozen reindeer are, however, omitted from the schematic rendition, Fig. 7). Together with the above-mentioned megaceros, the aurochs and the reindeer are representative of the transition from the lower cave to Hillaire Hall; their function is tied to this portion of the cave, and none of the three species is present in the outer half of the cave.
This quite nuanced approach persists as we progress into the far end of the Hall of Bears’ Nests in the outer half of the cave (cf. Fig. 1a). Here, still close to the Threshold, we find an extensive panel of mostly red images, including a last gathering of lions and rhinos–all painted in red (Fig. 8). Beginning at this point, the force of the “red” prevails, overriding the “black” essence of the two species. The red coloration results in a softened appearance that is quite different from the grim look of the dark lions and rhinos in the innermost cave. The change of color signals a decisive shift of balance between the agencies of “black” and “red.”
Concurrent with the more benign outlook, the red images of the human hand make their appearance. They are specific to the area that lies just outside the Threshold. These hands–both positive prints and negative stencils–are juxtaposed with the red lions and rhinos, and appear to relate directly to the transformation of these characters as indicated by their warmer hue. In fact, red lions and rhinos are grouped around a field of hands (Fig. 8), which implies a connection between the act of printing the hands and the mellowing of the violent creatures.
As we leave the inner cave and move a little farther into the outer cave, we also witness the increased presence of the bear, and conversely, the phasing-out of the lion. This reversal of roles is captured in the all-red display of a large bear flanked by two smaller lions (Fig. 9). Another panel in the same area shows a large bear above a smaller lion (both figures covered with red dots). These groups prepare for the assured prevalence of the bear in the front of the cave. In Brunel Hall the process of change has left only one lion and no rhinos: our return from visiting the innermost cave has brought us around almost full circle.
In addition to the animal species mentioned above, the cave also features mammoths and ibexes as major motifs. Both are present throughout the cave, but each individual figure reflects the specific character of its location so that they still observe the dualistic program. The mammoth is an inner-cave motif, as the majority of the figures (about sixty-five of some seventy-five) are found behind the Threshold and are painted black (or engraved). Just outside the Threshold, in the panel of the red lions and rhinos, we find a transitory figure in the form of a black mammoth with a red hand-print superimposed on its body, and immediately following this one, an all-red mammoth; thus, the mellowing effect of the “red” agency asserts itself. A few more red specimens are located in the front of the cave. The ibex is an outer-cave motif that, like the mammoth, observes the complementary principle described above: the Descending Gallery has a single, black ibex; Hillaire Hall has half a dozen engraved figures; the outer half of the cave has several red figures.
The horse is a special case in so far as it, more precisely than either the mammoth or the ibex, offers a condensed summary of the cave’s program. An outer-cave motif, the horse is actually distributed fairly evenly throughout the cave, and only the changing appearances of the figures of horses reveal how profoundly they take part in the overall progression of the decorative scheme. In the depths, the horses are overpowered by lions, bison and rhinos (cf. Fig. 2), but in Hillaire Hall they ascend to prominence (cf. Fig. 3, Fig. 4, and Fig. 7). Just outside the Threshold it emerges carrying a red hand-print on its, still black, body (Fig. 11). This figure is situated right next to the above-mentioned black mammoth marked by a red hand-print, and like that one, this horse is on the verge of transformation into its “red” identity. Finally, in Brunel Hall, we find an all-red horse’s head.
Based on a purely formal analysis that avoids interpretation, the above survey demonstrates that the decoration of Chauvet is ruled by the concept of complementary dualism. Only a fraction of the cave’s figures can be discussed here, but the main features of the imagery are well established, and we can confidently state that the decoration exhibits a series of correlated changes, whereby one of the two agents, the “black” or the “red,” gains momentum to the same degree that the other one loses it–although neither totally conquers the other. This pattern is inherently cyclic because we must visit the cave coming from the outside and we must follow the decline of the “red” and growth of the “black” to the end; then we must return, following the regression of the “black” and the progression of the “red.”
“Yin-and-yang” at Chauvet
The complementary dualism traced above is strikingly similar to the well-known concept of yin-and-yang. Though Ice Age art ignores the famous (but historically late) yin-yang symbol of a circle divided by an “S” into a black and a white field, we may plot the individual sections of the cave, each with its distinct decoration, against that ingenious design, albeit using black and red for black and white. Thus, the somber end-section of the Descending Gallery answers to the fullness of the black (yin) field; the decline of the inner-cave motifs in Hillaire Hall equals the narrowing of the black field, while the corresponding increase in outer-cave motifs concurs with the first swelling of the white field. After the Threshold–the point of equilibrium–the inner motifs are overpowered by the outer ones, and in Brunel Hall, the proliferation of luminous images matches the fullness of the white field. We may even consider the single bear in the innermost cave as the equivalent of the white dot in the black field, just as the single lion in the front echoes the black dot in the white field. Those two dots in the emblematic design are, of course, the nuclear representations of either principle, which survive the full expansion of the opposite principle; each is a cell from which the all-but-eliminated agency will eventually regenerate. As the yin-yang sign is cyclic, so is the cave. When we read the decoration first from the entrance to the end, then return, reading from the back to the front, we come full circle from the rule of the “red” to the dominion of the “black” on entering, and vice-versa on leaving.
This scheme is surprising in the context of early cave art, in so far as the yin-yang philosophy is associated with thoughts and beliefs of the Far East where it has ancient roots. The concept may be traced back to funeral imagery of Neolithic China in which the tiger-yin is pitched against the dragon-yang (Cheng-Tih and Zezong 1993). From early Taoist texts we may learn about the developed form of the system and its application to widely varied human activities and natural phenomena whereby it achieves the status of a genuine philosophy. (Granet 1975; Kim 2000).
To judge from the following review of binary themes in the cave, the people of Chauvet had already arrived at an equally accomplished system of thought, one that encompassed the binary categories of winter/summer, female/male, concave/convex, earth/sky, and, even/odd. These are all applications of the yin-yang concept that we recognize among the cornerstones of early Taoist texts. Note that for the sake of convenience, in what follows we shall borrow the terms “yin” and “yang,” though these were certainly not the words used in the European Palaeolithic.
Winter and summer
The yearly sequence of the seasons exposed as the interplay of yin and yang was always an essential topic in Taoism (Granet 1975, 129), with fall and winter being yin, spring and summer yang (Kim 200, Table 4.1). Likewise at Chauvet, the decoration tracks the yearly cycle from summer to winter on entering the cave, and from winter to summer on leaving it. In this trajectory, winter and summer pursue complementary courses, one season waxing as the other one wanes, one reaching its climax as the other one is reduced to a minimal presence.
The contrast of winter and summer is also evident in Chauvet, both in the seasonal connotations of specific motifs and in the narrative that unfolds in the cave at large. First of all, the artists’ black charcoal readily suggests darkness and the cold (it is, actually, burnt-out wood), and the red of the ocher, like fire and blood, relates to light and warmth. In the second place, the animals depicted carry seasonal connotations that match the sequence of the corresponding cave sections. Thus, the woolly rhinoceros and the mammoth, both emblematic of the inner cave, were exceptionally well adjusted to the cold of the northern steppes and tundra and therefore inherently associated with winter. The same is largely true of the bison, in particular by comparison with the aurochs, which was much less tolerant of harsh winters, to the effect that the exchange in Hillaire Hall, where aurochs replace bison, evokes the seasonal change from frost to thaw. This shift is the subject of a panel at the opening of the Descending Gallery, which shows a bison and an aurochs arranged in counterpoise, with the former turned toward the descent, the latter toward the hall, so that, symbolically, the bison heads for winter, the aurochs for spring (Fig. 7). The reindeer makes its appearance in this same panel, along with the aurochs (although reindeer are not included in our rendition), and it too recalls the transition from winter to spring, because of the reindeer’s spectacular migrations, which are early harbingers of spring (cf. Chapter VII).
The bear, the predominant animal of the foremost cave, conveys the notion of spring as the time when the animal emerges from hibernation. The images of bears are apparently placed in the front of the cave to suggest the animals’ readiness to exit with the end of winter, and the warm red color of these figures announces the end of the icy season. Physical traces of actual, hibernating bears abound in the cave, with bones and skulls strewn across the floors and innumerable claw marks dug into large areas of walls. These conspicuous marks are evidence of the animals’ re-awakening and restless activity toward winter’s end.
Early Chinese texts proclaim that the yang of spring is manifest when hibernating animals begin to stir, whereas the yin of fall is felt as animals go into hibernation (Granet 1975, 129). From the calendars of archaic cultures we know the practice of naming months and seasons after animals or plants that mark the progression of the year. One example, a circular, carved calendar from the Komi territory of Russia (Konakov 1994), has the image of a bear as emblem of early spring (about March-April), which agrees with the imagery of Chauvet. For early summer (roughly May) the same Komi calendar has a reindeer, which differs from the timing of the reindeer in Hillaire Hall, but only in so far as the calendrical image refers to the early summer calving, whereas the Chauvet paintings rather suggest the early spring migration toward the calving grounds.
Even the red impressions of hands that appear along with the bears just outside the Threshold, are relevant to the change of seasons. Though they are not distinctly time-factored, they evoke the sun, visibly imitating its rays with the fan-shape of the fingers, as in the Homeric “rosy-fingered dawn” (Lacalle Rodriguez 1996, 274). This reading is commensurate with the location, which is the point at which we pass into the red part of the cave, the summer-half, with the progressive strengthening of the sun.
The horse, the sun, and the seasons
The above-mentioned signposts of the seasons are placed in chronological sequence throughout the cave, but spaced intermittently. The element that ties them together in a continuous narrative is the motif of the horse, as beholds the prime image of the sun (cf. Chapter V). Because the year, ultimately, is the life-story of the sun, the sequential changes in the images of horses, from one end of the cave to the other, provide a consistent record of time: one half of the cycle of the year when entering the cave and moving from summer and “yang” to the dominion of winter and “yin”; the other half on leaving the innermost cave and progressing from the rule of winter to the resurgence of summer when back at the entrance.
In the farthest chamber, the “Sacristy,” the two small black horses held captive by a huge lion (Fig. 2) illustrate the endangered situation of the sun at the winter solstice, when “yang” is suppressed by “yin.” However, that moment of extreme darkness, when the sun grinds to a near-halt, is also the crucial turning point at which the cycle of complementary dualism asserts itself. Indeed, the scene captures this dramatic moment by the contrasting appearances of the two horses. The lower, drooping horse is turned toward the back of the cave and portrays the demise of the weak sun and the old year; the upper, more animated horse is turned outward and hints at a renewal.
That first faint sign of renewed energies is picked up by two images of horses on the opposite wall of the “Sacristy.” Here, one horse–dwarfed by yet another large lion–is first painted in black, then outlined in red (LeGuillou 2001). This is noteworthy because of the scant use of red in the inner cave; in fact, the red on the horse in question is the only touch of red in the “Sacristy.” We may see this sparse addition of red on top of black as indicating the beginning revival of the sun, an infusion of new vigor into the stifled solar year. A first attempt to move past the solar nadir is also indicated by the position of this two-colored horse, which is turned toward the outside and appears to be on the verge of leaving the chamber; its muzzle is right at the entrance to the short corridor that connects “Sacristy” with the main gallery. Immediately beyond this horse (still reading the cave from inside out), another horse (all black) takes us the next step forward, because it is shown in the very act of emerging from the other end of the corridor; only its forequarters are actually visible to a spectator in the main gallery outside the “Sacristy” (Fig. 10, in the background). The emergence of the sun-horse from the innermost chamber signals the rebirth of the sun at midwinter.
Still, the worst of winter (roughly January-February) is ahead, and the weakness of the new sun is evident as we continue to move out into the larger chamber with its panoramic show of roaring lions and trampling rhinos. In the middle of this grim frieze, held hostage in a small niche, we find a single horse that is pierced by spears. This is one of only two animal figures in the cave that are expressly wounded, and it is an emphatic illustration of the frail condition of the sun and “yang” against the overwhelming presence of images that spell winter and “yin.”
Thus, the horse does not advance until we reach the end of the frieze of rhinos and lions, where the gallery starts climbing upwards. At this point, the horse as the solar year begins the slow and tenuous ascent from the reign of winter toward spring. This progression is marked off by a handful of horses that are shown moving upwards, step-wise, through the gallery. They aim for Hillaire Hall above, and thus, for early spring.
The first horse in the hall is situated just outside the mouth of the Descending Gallery (Fig. 7). Turning away from the opening, it continues the general move away from the depths, which originated back in the “Sacristy” and which is to be carried to its conclusion in the main panel of Hillaire Hall, aptly named the “Panel of the horses” (Fig. 4). Already a reflection of the friendlier ambience of Hillaire Hall, the first horse (Fig. 7) is painted on a much larger scale than the preceding ones. The key theme of Hillaire Hall, the critical shift in the balance of “yin” and “yang” coincident with the end of winter, also finds expression in the equal sizes of horses and lions in the alcove (Fig. 3) and, most emphatically, in the troupe of horses (Fig. 4) that hover gracefully above two brute rhinos. The latter bang their large horns together with a crashing sound that, incidentally, might evoke the first thunder of spring.
Proceeding into the “red” half of the cave, just beyond the Threshold, we advance into early spring and witness the ascendancy of “yang.” We find this transition aptly illustrated by a horse that is outlined in black, but is marked on its body with a red hand-stencil (Fig. 11). The configuration of the black horse and the red hand speaks of a strengthening of the sun and an end to frost. As in the panel that shows hands together with red lions and rhinos, the superimposition of the hand on the horse also suggests that the active gesture of printing the hand amounts to a quasi-ritual act in support of the agency of “yang.” Correspondingly, the all-red rhinos and lions just outside the Threshold (cf. Fig. 8) no longer possess their imposing, dark and wintry side; their transformed, warmer appearance rather assures us that the forces of winter and “yin” are now on the wane, and that the balance has shifted in favor of “yang.”
Thus prepared for summer, we advance to Brunel Hall, where we find an all-red head of one horse, which is the first definitive image of the spring sun, and following this one, two all-yellow heads of horses (Fig. 12) that finally show us the summer sun in its regained brilliance. These are the only yellow figures in the entire cave, and it would be hard to ignore the implied allusion to the sun’s full recovery, the manifest empowerment of “yang.” Eventually, right next to the cave entrance is a drawing of two mature horses rubbing their necks together (Fig. 13) in a display of pre-mating behavior and a reference to the period of the rut around mid-May. This finishes a continuous journey from the rebirth of the sun in the depth of winter under the spell of “yin,” to its florescence in early summer with the culmination of “yang.”
Female-concave and male-convex
In the context of caves and cave art, it is hardly possible to draw a sharp distinction between the inner parts of the caves and the female sex; both embody the womb, and both are “yin.” At Chauvet, the depths of the cave are characterized not just by images that pertain to darkness and winter as described above, but also by a handful of vulvas that are drawn or painted in the Descending Gallery. These female images are only found here, nowhere outside this quintessential “yin” section. Also, deep fissures or pronounced recesses within caves were generally perceived as emblematic of the earth’s womb (cf. Chapter III) and therefore openings to the realm of “yin.” It is, thus, meaningful that the large alcove in Hillaire Hall is the last stronghold of the wintry characters of the Descending Gallery, with the last group of black lions and the last of the black bison.
The classification of the innermost cave as “yin” and the perception of the inner recesses as female are so inextricably connected, that the cave artists quite literally personified the inner recesses of many caves, marking them with images of female genitalia (for example, in Deux-Ouvertures, Pech-Merle, Gargas, Planchard, Gabillou, Pergouset, Bédeilhac, Montespan, Marsoulas, La Magdeleine, or Los Casares). This concept was often taken further still, as the artists designated fitting parts of caves as respectively the uterus, the vagina, and the vulva (for example, in Ker el Massat, as pointed out by Barrière 1990). This is certainly the case in the terminal sections of Chauvet: the “Sacristy” is the uterus, where the horse-sun is marked with the first touch of red, meaning life; the narrow passage from the “Sacristy” into the Descending Gallery is the vagina, or birth canal, through which the horse passes with the rebirth of the sun; the opening of this passage is the vulva. Sure enough, the image of the lower part of a woman’s body, with the vulva strongly accentuated, is painted immediately above this opening (Fig. 10), while other images of vulvas are painted or engraved on the surrounding wall faces.
It bears mentioning–though this can not be verified–that the “Sacristy” contains an engraved sign in the shape of an elongated rectangle that is open at one end (Le Guillou 2001, 21), and which possibly is an ideogram that spells “uterus.” For comparison, the terminal part of Los Casares, just before the closing fissure, has a comparable sign painted in red, which, here too, is followed (reading from inside out) by the image of a vulva (Cabré Aguiló 1934, Nos. 37, 23). A similar sign is painted repeatedly in a tight corridor at the edge of a precipice in La Pileta (Dams 1978. nos. 22-26). In the cave of Roucadour, virtually all of the decoration is assembled inside a gaping fissure, which obviously is female and “yin.” About three dozen rounded signs engraved inside this fissure resemble placentas (although this may not be proved): they are wrapped in multiple membranes and are dented at one point, suggesting the attachment of the umbilical cord. Several vulvas mark the opening of the fissure (Lorblanchet 2010; Coussy 2005). At the ultimate point of the cave of Pech-Merle, a diminutive chamber features natural formations that look like women’s breasts, complete with “nipples.” These were acknowledged by the artists and painted black (Lorblanchet 2010, 203-204).
As concave spaces are “yin,” so convex forms like stalactites and stalagmites are “yang.” This is explicit in the just-mentioned area of Chauvet, where a pending rock formation of vaguely phallic shape, male and “yang,” is thrust into the space of the inner cave, which is “yin” (Fig. 10). As if to confirm this reading, the obtrusive pendant carries the paintings of a female figure–just the lower body with emphasized sex–and a dancer wearing a bison skin and mask, a decidedly male motif and a staple of the cave art tradition. Of course, many caves have concretions that may be perceived as phallic, and many are actually marked with paint to show that the artists saw them as such (notable examples are found in Bédeilhac, Cosquer, Pileta, etc.) In some instances (for example in Cougnac and Portel) stalagmites are included as the penis of a painted human figure. In Cougnac and elsewhere, the ends of suitable stalactites or stalagmites were broken off (and carried away) or they were marked with touches of paint.
The unification of female and male is universally understood to be the natural source of life, but on a deeper level, the Palaeolithic artists believed the generative power of the sexual act to reside in the unification of “yin” and “yang.” The situation at the far end of Los Casares, near the final “uterus” sign of the cave, is again comparable to Chauvet, because the above-mentioned vulva in Casares is being approached by a human, male figure with a grossly oversize erection (Acosta González 2003, 109). In both caves, the topographical setting of the sexual imagery makes clear, that the unity of “yin” and “yang” was understood as the ultimate cause of life-generating powers, both biologically and cosmologically.
In this sense we may also understand the common symbolic act of inserting stone of bone points into cracks or small niches in cave walls (Lorblanchet 1995, 185). The penetrating objects are evidently male and “yang,” the openings in the wall faces are female and “yin,” and the cave is the microsom with which the artists interacted. Equally common is the related symbolic gesture of painting fissures and small recesses with red ocher, both around the openings and inside the hollows. Through these rituals the artists participated in the cosmic play of dual forces; as they imitated the union of the polar opposites, they sought to elicit a blessing of the world at large. This kind of activity was not reserved for decorated caves, but quite frequent in the treatment of mobile art objects as well. The drilled perforations, which are characteristic of bone staffs made from antlers, are typically framed by incision of a regular rhomboid design that emphasizes the significance of the hole as female and “yin.” On many staffs the other end, opposite to the perforation, is carved to a phallic likeness. Such objects openly proclaim the unification of the all-embracing polarity, and they are typically decorated with images that pertain to seasonality and sexuality.
Earth and sky, high and low
The near-universal concept of an earth/sky duality is another stable component of yin-yang philosophy. In Chauvet, as in Ice Age art generally, the theme is represented by the two species of oxen in cave art, the bison representing the earth, the aurochs the sky (cf. Chapters III and IV). These roles reflect morphological differences, as the bison’s large hump lowers its head toward the earth; by contrast, the aurochs head is raised toward the sky (Christensen 1996). We recognize this distinction at Chauvet if we compare an aurochs (Fig. 6) and a bison (Fig. 7), both in Hillaire Hall. Thus, the cosmic attributions are based on another, broadly applied set of yin-yang categories: low versus high.
The distinction between the bison as earth and the aurochs as sky, the former “yin,” the latter “yang,” is illustrated in a prominent panel in Hillaire Hall (Fig. 7). Here the bison and the aurochs clearly are clearly seen as a pair, because they are of equal size and are positioned symmetrically on either side of the panel; as the two oxen are shown moving away from each other, they are also polarized. The specific location of the panel echoes the cosmological implications, for it is painted precisely where the Descending Gallery opens up into the lofty hall. Coming out of the bowels of the earth, a visitor would here enter the sky-world of the upper cave, performing a microcosmic re-enactment of some myth about the primordial separation of the two elements of the macrocosmic world. It is, then, fitting that the bison turns toward the Descending Gallery, that is, toward the depths and “yin,” while the aurochs aims for the outer world and “yang.”
Lascaux presents us with a later rendition of the earth/sky polarity that, while it may look different from the Chauvet example, follows essentially the same model. In Lascaux we have, on one side, the deep Shaft, dominated by the dark figures of a rhino and a bison; on the other side, we have the lofty Rotunda, with the frieze of white aurochs bulls spread out across the shiny vault. This contrast echoes the situation in Chauvet, where the bottom of the Descending Gallery is dominated by the frieze of rhinos, lions, and bison, while Hillaire Hall has its prominent panel of aurochs bulls (Fig. 5). In each cave, a visitor moving between the two sections would follow closely parallel trajectories: in Chauvet, starting in the Descending Gallery, ascending to Hillaire Hall, and emerging next to the panel with the first aurochs bull (Fig. 7); in Lascaux, starting in the Shaft, using a ladder to climb up, crawling through the irregular Passage, and exiting into the Rotunda right under the largest of the white bulls. Across 10-15,000 years, artists projected their image of the world in very similar terms.
Numbers: even and odd
Numerology plays a significant role in Chinese yin-yang theory, whereby even numbers are yin, odd numbers yang. At Chauvet, in a panel of the outer cave, short strokes and dots with obvious numerical significance are juxtaposed with the two yellow horses (Fig. 12). They observe the mentioned principle of Chinese numerology in so far as three red bars accompany one yellow horse that, as the image of the spring-summer sun, is surely “yang.” Likewise, three red strokes mark the first of the red bears (Fig. 9), another eminently “yang” figure.
In fact, not just one group of three strokes, but two such groups of three accompany this bear, and in this it, again, resembles the panel of the yellow horses (Fig. 12), which contains a conspicuous sign that is made up of two sets of three dots. In each case, the marks are arranged in sets of three, and are therefore odd and “yang”; yet, they are also paired and are therefore even and “yin.” The three-times-two sign thus brings together “yin” and “yang” to evoke completion and acknowledge the union of the all-embracing opposites as the source of the new life proclaimed by the horses of summer. This concept of the sources of universal blessings agrees with the above-mentioned unification of the female and male sexes in the imagery of the inner cave (cf. Fig. 10), as well as with the interlocked figures of a male and a female horse in Brunel Hall (Fig. 13).
Already in the era of Chauvet, numerology was a well- established venue for yin-yang-like dualism, and it remained significant, as witnessed by the frequency of double and/or triple marks in later Upper Palaeolithic art. Often we find clouds of double-strokes as, for example, in La Pileta, where they accompany the above-mentioned uterus-like signs, or in Cougnac, where the panels farthest inside the cave indulge in paired marks, meaning “yin,” while the images closest to the cave’s entrance triple dots and strokes, meaning “yang” (Lorblanchet 2010, 253; 264-65). The specific groupings of marks in three-times-two (or, two-times-three) is characteristic of the endpoints of caves, as seen in Lascaux, Gabillou, Pech Merle, Tito Bustillo, Trois-Frères, Fontanet, and Le Portel.
The scope of Upper Palaeolithic thought
The philosophical scheme of Chauvet was clear, functional, and durable enough to remain in use for the extended life of Palaeolithic cave art. More than ten thousand years after Chauvet we recognize the above formulations of the “yin-yang” system in the decoration of Lascaux. Although the imagery of Lascaux is quite different from that of Chauvet, the conceptual base remains valid. Lascaux does not have the mammoths, reindeer, megaceros, or bears of Chauvet; instead the younger cave has numerous red deer, and more horses and aurochs than the old one. However, the different selection of motifs at Lascaux–and the brighter outlook that it reflects–did not erode the underlying philosophy, and a brief survey of the visual narrative of Lascaux will reveal the perseverance of the scheme of Chauvet, not the least in the parallel presentation of the horse as solar and “yang.”
In Lascaux we see seasonal changes articulated by the shifting appearances of horses, from black or dark-brown figures in the inner cave to brightly yellow figures in the outer sections (cf. Chapter V). Hundreds of figures of horses allow for a continual transition from the low and narrow sections, the domain of fall-winter and “yin,” to the wide and lofty regions that belong to spring-summer and “yang.” In the inner sections we find the lions, the single rhinoceros, and the bison; in the outer areas, the aurochs hold sway. This is much like Chauvet, and in traversing Lascaux we witness, as in Chauvet, the plight of the weak horse-sun encircled by lions in a tiny chamber near the far end of the cave. We also encounter the emergence of the revived horse as it rises from the mouth of a tunnel, again reminiscent of Chauvet (the horse emerging from the “Sacristy”). This emerging horse is the reborn sun of the winter solstice, and at Lascaux, the scene is set in the south-eastern corner of the cave where it agrees with the actual direction of mid-winter sunrise.
Lascaux also recalls the dichotomy of colors in Chauvet, though color symbolism in the younger cave is not as plain as in the older one. At Lascaux, the aurochs–the most prominent motif after the horse–projects a clear duality in the distribution of bright and dark figures: half a dozen white bulls and an equal number of red cows dominate the very front of the cave; a single black bull and a handful of black cows are relegated to the inner cave. We also find some transitional images at the end of the Axial Gallery: two red cows and four yellow heads of bulls, all of which are partly visible despite being covered by the body of a black bull; a black cow which carries a large red spot on her body (Aujoulat 2004, 107-08, 116-17).
To represent the female and “yin” of the inner cave versus the male and “yang” of the outer cave, the decoration of Lascaux does not rely on explicit images of the sex organs, but rather on the sexual dimorphism of animal figures or abstract ideograms. An example of the former is the different treatment of the two sexes of the aurochs. Toward the back of the Nave, the largest of the cave’s cows stresses the maternal aspect of the female sex; as the image of the night sky giving birth to the horse-sun (cf. Chapter I), her square, black body proclaims the inner part of the gallery the realm of “yin.” To the contrary, the largest of the white bulls in the Rotunda–the largest painting in all of cave art–is demonstratively male, and it claims the front section as “yang.” Generally, the cows dominate the inner cave sections (the Apse, the Nave, and the end of the Axial Gallery); the bulls prevail in the front, where they are disproportionately larger (three to four times bigger) than the cows. Here the preponderance of “yang” is evident.
The duality of sky and earth is a major theme at Lascaux, one that is inspired by the striking topography of the natural cave with its sky-like, domed and vaulted ceilings, separated by a marked horizontal line from the rough, earth-like base of the walls (Christensen 1996). These features are brought out by the contrast between, on the one side, the aurochs–the white bulls and the red or black cows–that occupy the sky-world of the ceilings, and on the other side, the bison which occupy the earth-like areas, low on the walls or back in the inner, constricted cave sections (cf. Chapter III).
Numerical symbolism at Lascaux is apparent, for example, in the repeated use of the mentioned two-times-three motif, which is found in the depth of the Shaft and at the farthest end of the cave, extreme zones in which the renewal of creation is achieved by the merger of “yin” (the even number two) and “yang” (the odd number three). In Lascaux, as in Chauvet, the image of a horse’s head painted in yellow–a rare color in both caves–is juxtaposed with three vertical strokes (Aujoulat 2004, 182), characterizing the new sun as “yang.” In Lascaux, this yellow horse is placed in an area of the Nave that is rich in numerical symbolism. On the facing wall, the just-mentioned black cow is connected with three carefully engraved and painted square signs, each of which articulates the even number four by its four corners, while the group indicates the odd number three. These remarkable signs are touched by the cow’s tail and hind hoofs, and the position under the celestial aurochs fits an ideogram that denotes the earth with its four corners. One of the squares is pierced by six arrows which are arranged in two groups of three (Aujoulat 2004, 176), which is yet another example of the two-times-three sign for the fusion of “yin” and “yang,” here used to relate two sets of observations: the rebirth of the sun from the womb of the night sky, and the rise of the sun from the earth. The association of the numerical three and four, odd and even, formulated by the three square signs, is repeated in the neighboring panel, a prominent frieze of seven ibexes’ heads that are clearly divided into two groups (Aujoulat 2004, 162): one of four black heads, and one of three red heads–a group that is even, dark, and “yin,” and a group that is odd, light, and “yang.”
Several dozen square or rectangular signs are a characteristic and visible feature of Lascaux. Virtually all are far from the entrance, most are in abscessed areas, and many are placed low on the walls; certainly they are associated with the earth and are “yin.” Thus, none are in the domed Rotunda with the sky-related aurochs bulls; to the contrary, most are in the Apse, clustering at the descent to the Shaft. Their strong presence in Lascaux must serve to balance the dual cosmic principles in a cave that is, itself, predominantly “yang” both by its bright, expansive appearance and by its serene decoration, which is dominated by the “yang” motifs: horse, aurochs, stag, and ibex. Chauvet, quite to the contrary, has almost no “yin” signs, but hundreds of “yang” signs, mainly in the form of fields of dots and hands that have no match in Lascaux. At Chauvet, these signs were apparently felt needed in order to counterbalance the eroded, incrustated character of a cave that is itself heavily “yin” and decorated with a preponderance of matching motifs: lions, rhinos, mammoths, and bison (this side of Chauvet is brought out well in Werner Herzog’s film documentary, Cave of Forgotten Dreams). In designing a scheme for the decoration of a cave, the artists responded to the character of the site with art works that reflected the given features, but in so doing they would use numerical signs and ideograms to maintain a felicitous equivalence of the two ruling principles and to articulate the drama of their narrative.
Very similar visual conventions prevailed to the end of the era of cave art. Altamira, which was mainly decorated thousands of years after Lascaux, is divided by color distinction into an inner “black” half, and an outer “red” half. Certain motifs sustain this scheme, as the black signs in the back portion are another type than the red signs in the front. In this cave too, the seasonal theme is carried along by changes in the figures of horses. Thus, the back corridor features a black horse which is drastically wounded, while the great ceiling near the front displays vigorously jumping, red horses which are accompanied by red hand-prints (Freeman and González Echegaray 2001, 39-40, 49). These configurations readily recall the, perhaps twenty thousand years older, imagery at Chauvet.
We may sum up this investigation of cogent ideas in cave art with the statement that the cave artists, at least since Chauvet, charted the progressive events of a seasonal narrative with the help of an over-arching philosophical principle. Such a level of complexity would hardly be comprehensible without an appreciation of images and visual signs and a recognition of their potential for shaping and maintaining thoughts within a pre-literate culture. Of course, a script–even a pictographic one–may allow for developments that are otherwise not feasible, and the lack of writing probably explains why the people of Lascaux still relied on an artistic tradition that was explicitly stated already in the age of Chauvet, more than ten thousand years earlier. Though less specific than a writing system, the visual language of Palaeolithic art still allowed the artists to keep their verbal lore focused on certain basic concepts. Thus the image of a horse would be universally understood as a representation of the sun, the solar year, and “yang.” Moreover, the finer details of particular stories and rituals would be recognized from the visual cues in the portrayal of any given horse, be it sexually or seasonally determined, animated or immobile, horizontal or tilted, stylistically exuberant or generic; each detail carried a message that would be comprehensible.
We must credit the artists of the caves with the ability to form abstract ideas, to articulate them verbally and visually, and to adjust ideas and images to match changes in climate and fauna. They maintained the basic principles of a yin-yang-type philosophy, and they scrutinized natural phenomena to obtain functional classifications. If measured against strict scientific criteria, their approach may be deemed arbitrary, but in the context of Upper Palaeolithic cultures, it was possibly a necessary step towards a synthesis of knowledge. We may even recognize a rudimentary proto-scientific mind-set in the application of the philosophical system to calendrical and astronomical observations (cf. Chapter XI).
Heritage of Palaeolithic philosophy
Complementary dualism plays the ephemeral role of an under-current in the history of Western philosophy. Dynastic Egypt still maintained a rudimentary concept of the unity of contrasts in the institution of the “Two Lands,” dramatized by the perpetual struggle of the incomparable deities, Seth and Horus. Thus, dualism permeated speculations and rituals that remained central to Egyptian religion at large (McCarter 2011, 21). In European thought, elements of a genuine binary system survived in some Pythagorean schemes, notably in Empedocles’ cosmic balance of “love” and “hate,” but in these systems the contrast between light and dark tended toward the absolutes of ethical imperatives rather than the mutable phases of decay and regeneration manifest in seasonal cycles (Miller 2011, 125; McCarter 2011, 20). Perhaps the most recognizable exhibit of prehistoric concepts was the Pythagoreans’ numerology, according to which even numbers were “unlimited” (that is, chaotic) and female, while odd numbers were “limited” (that is, ordered) and male (Burkert 1972, 34, 51, 468-75). Prehistoric symbolism seems to echo in the Alchemists’ imaginary transition from “nigredo” (black) and death to “rubedo” (red) and life (Eliade 1962, 162).
More authentic residues of Upper Palaeolithic dualism might be found in folklore from the geographical region in which the Ice Age caves are located. Indigenous farming cultures, with their mock battles between “Winter” and “Summer,” their bonfires, May-Poles, fertility rocks, and so forth, possibly preserved beliefs from well before the “Neolithic Revolution.” Thus the Basque province of La Soule maintains a spring masquerade with performances by two troupes, one called “black” (les Noirs), the other “red” (les Rouges), the former representing rude chaos, the latter civility and order. In this context, the participation of a bear in the traditional parade seems to vouch for the deep roots of the rite (Violet 1928).
In most cases, however, ethnographic comparisons do not yield convincing parallels to the cogent system of ideas represented at Chauvet. Binary principles may be near-universal among archaic cultures, yet nowhere do they appear to be applied with the persistent rigor of the caves’ programs. For example, the Khanty of western Siberia perceived the seasonal rhythm as a conflict between two competing forces: during summer, the earth was dominated by the “Spirits of the Above,” during winter, by the “Spirits of the Below” (Golovnev 1994, 63-64); the concept is dualistic, but apparently not complementary. Native peoples of the North American prairies united geography, calendar, cosmology, and social structures in schemes like the Sioux’ and Osages’ ceremonial camp circles. These were divided into half-circles to reflect the polarities of sky and earth, summer and winter, as well as the duality of the tribal moieties (Müller 1962, 570). Even so, such schemes project rigid divisions rather than the subtly balanced transitions that characterize the Oriental yin-yang system and, as demonstrated above, the decoration of Chauvet.
Strange as it may seem, the yin-yang philosophy of the Far East may be closer to the conceptual system of Ice Age art than any historical European tradition or recorded archaic lore. Theoretically, the diffusion of this conceptional system could have predated the settlement of homo sapiens in southern and western Europe (about fifty thousand years ago) in the course of the exodus “out of Africa.” Alternatively, a later migration of peoples and ideas across Eurasia, from west to east, could account for the puzzling connection. We are not yet prepared to resolve this issue.